I work with a man that we call “Bend Over”. He’s in his 50s and lithe, lanky in the way that men of that age will be if they drink too much or sleep too little. He’s also very tall, so he looks a bit like an average man’s shadow at dusk, and after work, I often see him running home on the sidewalk like a pale wraith, with his legs swinging like sinewy croquet mallets, face knotted resolutely. He clearly falls into the category of men who get very little sleep and seems to have deep conduits of vitality running through him. I’ve estimated, based on where I’ve spotted Bend Over running (from my car, naturally), and where he says he lives, that his run home is at least fifteen miles. Age cannot put its cloak over him.
He is proud of those legs, with their globular muscles and sturdy knees, and he used to wear uncomfortably short shorts year round until someone of weak disposition complained about the obscenity of his britches. As a result, he had to attend a meeting with higher ups from the Company who made him bend over, hence the moniker, to see what might be revealed. After that meeting and some negotiations, the Company and the Union agreed on a suitable length of trousers for him to wear, which reach to the top of his knees. He complained to everyone who would listen about this and soon we were all calling him Bend Over.
In general, Bend Over despises the Company and will unleash jeremiads about it at the drop of a “Good morning!” This makes it difficult to talk to him and I often find myself navigating between avoiding him entirely, which might well alienate him, and triggering his flood of invective by chatting with him. His tirades can be unending. He doesn’t really seem to work very much and is in a strangely combative relationship with the Company, and yet he also doesn’t seem inclined to leave. The Union steadily defends his right to be there. For a time, there was a conflict because Bend Over would show up for work and then disappear for most of his shift. The Company gave him a pager, which he claimed never worked, and the Company and the Union fought over that as well. Our Union rep is nearly as strange as Bend Over and I remember their conversation at the annual Christmas party.
B.O.: Why do they want to take our pictures?
Me: It’s the Christmas picture for the newsletter.
B.O. They don’t have the right to take my picture! I refuse! Who’s going to get that picture?
Coworker: It goes up in the break room and I believe Mossad gets a copy. (Laughter)
Union Rep: Don’t worry everyone. The Union says we don’t have to be in the Christmas picture. We can refuse. It’s a violation of our privacy.
As I sat there listening to this winding conversation and considering committing ho-ho-homicide, a few random but related thoughts occurred to me. They’ve been coming back regularly over the year that I’ve worked for this Company.
The first is that Unions such as ours are the worst possible solution to a problem that Companies such as ours create, with the rest of us getting stuck in the middle. Namely, the Union fights most vigorously to defend the continued employment of workers at the outer edges of dysfunction who probably should be fired. I don’t think those of us who generally defend unions acknowledge this quite enough, but it tends to give the Company a negative view of unionized workers overall. All organizations have a few people who don’t exactly pull their weight; ours are there for life unless they commit some horribly egregious sin.
The problem for the rest of us is that the Company is pushing to undertake a complete “casualization” of its labor force, regardless of service, which means that we still need the Union. The movement to only hire part-time minimum wage workers on short-term contracts along with other temps is fairly universal across the industry, and many, if not most industries at this point, and it keeps gaining force and momentum. Ignoring all the corporate blather about “flexibility” and “streamlining”, I think it’s fairly clearly motivated by the traditional administrative obsession with control; power, in other words. Again, it’s average workers like myself who get stuck in the middle. Even if we excel at our work, we need the Union rallying to keep our jobs, and the Union in turn spends a great deal of its time and energy keeping the worst of our coworkers employed.
A secondary thought is that I work with a great number of square pegs and misfits. If we’re being honest here, I’m fairly odd myself. It’s entirely possible that some of my quirks and eccentricities would get me fired elsewhere: I lose things constantly, work on writing until the wee hours of the night before work, often seem to be daydreaming, and am generally best at working alone. This is important and related because there’s a subtle ideology in our society about labor jobs such as this one; a sort of vulgar Cartesianism wherein the intelligent or educated will naturally work best in a white collar office setting, while those on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum should work with their bodies at semi-skilled labor jobs like this one. What gets overlooked is that there are many of us for whom the thought of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen is simply more painful than cleaning toilets for just above minimum wage. I work with writers, musicians, religious seekers, some PhDs, and more than a few weirdos, like myself. I work with a few high school dropouts too, but not as many as I think people would suspect.
At least, this is the impression I get from my white collar friends who ask “Why do you clean toilets? You’re smart!” I get the same impression from many of the people whose offices I clean, particularly the ones who speak to me very slowly and simply. I should mention though that I work at a university, which is a huge corporate enterprise sustained by the belief that intelligence naturally leads to professional employment, which, in turn, leads to some sort of personal fulfillment. When polls show that roughly 70% of workers feel disengaged from what they do, this can’t possibly be true. I suspect that many of us do things to pay our bills but consider our true work to be elsewhere. As I often say to my artist friends: in 2015, nobody cares whether or not William Faulkner was a good or a bad night watchman.
Finally, when we talk, as we often do nowadays, about income inequality and employment ‘precarity’, it would be good to consider our own assumptions about different sorts of work and the people who do that work, and how those assumptions contribute to these situations. At some point, we need to realize that for many, if not most, of us, what we do during the working day has nothing to do with who we are.
And yet, we all (more or less) have to work in this world. Even us weirdos.